An Insider's Guide to Gero: Japan's Frog City

Today on the blog we present to you…. an insider’s guide to the quaint Japanese frog city of Gero, by published author and Japan Times contributor Carla Francis. Gero is translated into English as ‘ribbit ribbit’ (the sound a frog makes) and this quirky town isn’t short on frog themed landmarks. As if that wasn’t reason enough to visit, Gero is also tipped as being the third best city in Japan to indulge in a relaxing thermal bath.

Carla has travelled extensively around Japan and lived there for almost four years. Her first book Travelling with Pets was inspired by her Japanese cat after travelling internationally with him. She is currently working on her second book, a travel memoir set in the mountains of Gifu. You can follow her on Twitter @carla_francis1

Frog Shrines and Spa Baths

Trying to work out which onsen to visit in Japan is a bit like deciding which delicious morsels to select off a sushi train, and all at reasonable prices.

Ever since I’d heard about a riverside hot spa where you didn’t need to strip down to your birthday suit, I wanted to take a splash at this bath lover's dream destination. Surrounded by rich green mountains, Gero is famed for being one of the best places to take a thermal bath in Japan. The Japanese are said to gravitate to this city because it's the third best city in the country to take a relaxing thermal bath.  Located in Gifu prefecture, take a relaxing two-hour train ride north of Nagoya, to arrive at this wonderfully quaint city.

Charlie Chaplin © Mark Taylor

Gero Shrine © Mark Taylor

Although familiar with Japanese culture, I’d always been a British prude when it came to going totally nude and languishing with other naked people in a hot tub, except my own humble tub at home.

Yet, bathing is serious business in Japan. Getting its power from both its connection to Shinto purification practices---the idea that bathing creates not only a clean body, but also a clean mind and spirit. Unlike other countries, you don’t bathe alone in Japan.

So, if you are anything like me and naked bathing doesn't appeal then fear not as Gero offers one of the few outdoor baths where swimwear is permitted- and encouraged! The riverside bath is free of charge but there are no staff on hand, no changing rooms and no walls – so most definitely wear your bathers. It’s open to anyone, so you can just show up and take an onsen here anytime.

The natural hot waters are said to have healing properties,  bringing a calming atmosphere, not only emotionally, but physically too. Packed with alkaline, the therapeutic properties enrich this miracle water, leaving you feeling refreshed and renewed with silky smooth skin.

Stay

You can choose to enjoy the surroundings in a short day visit or even partake in an elegant overnight stay at the famous Yunoshimakan Ryokan- or Japanese inn. Built in 1931 and is steeped in cultural history it has a luxury indoor spa bath and an awe-inspiring rooftop open air bath too that looks out onto mossy green mountains and lofty ancient cedars. Imagine, telling your friends back home you took a bath in the same place as not one but two of Japans Emperors for just ¥1000 ($9.00).

If you are looking for something slightly more modern, this ryokan may not be to your liking, however the views are quite spectacular. The hotel is perched at the top of a hill and is well worth the uphill workout for the tranquillity alone. Room rates ¥47841 ($430). (yunoshimakan.co.jp,  +81 576 25 4126

As an alternative, try Fukaku. This conveniently located Ryokan, which is reasonable in price, has a great selection of food and a natural hot spring bath within the hotel, which is situated along the beautiful Hida River, just a short walk away from the JR Gero Station. Room rates including breakfast and dinner ¥13,500 ($120.00). (gero-fugaku.com, +81 576 3428)

Yunoshimakan Ryokan © Mark Taylor

Visit

On arrival to Gero, visitors do the scenic walking tour to familiarise themselves with the city and soak their feet in one of the ten foot onsens dotted around. A visit to the frog shrine in honour of the city's name is advisable. Translated into English, "Gero" (ribbit ribbit) means the sound of the frog and as a result there are frogs everywhere you look - a remarkable sight. There’s even a large sculpted frog statue that spouts water so that visitors can purify themselves before entering the shrine.

Frog Shrine © Mark Taylor

Gero Onsen Museum © Carla Francis

Pop into the Gero Onsen museum to learn more about this popular national pastime's health benefits and at as the sun draws to a close you can sit next to the incongruous Charlie Chaplin statue in the centre of town, and watch as people stroll around the city in Yukata, a spring kimono, after their hot bath - truly evocative of the Japan of yesteryear.

Eat

If you're feeling peckish be prepared to eat early as most of the restaurants close after 2pm and reopen again at 6pm, similar to the Spanish siesta. Hidagyu is one of the most popular brands of beef from this area, so why not be like a local and wash it down with some high quality saki (rice wine) said to be the best in the country - all thanks to the natural, unblemished environment of this region.

Travel

To reach Gero, you need to head north from Nagoya on the JR Line but be sure to get an express train. Grab yourself a rail pass for Central Japan that gives you unlimited rides on JR Express trains and buses; definitely the most cost-effective option, the tourist pass is valid for five days and costs around ¥13,500 ($120.00).

Gero city is touted as an all-season resort where visitors can see the famed cherry blossoms in Spring, enjoy the changing colours of autumn and the beautiful alpine scenery in winter.

There’s something about small towns that ignite our imaginations. Maybe it's the charming main streets lined with century-old structures, now filled with artisan shops and cosy eateries, or the meandering rivers that run through the town centre and majestic mountains that rise in the not-too-far distance, offering access to a world of activity.  

So, go Gero Gero for this onsen town that won't disappoint!

Hida River © Mark Taylor